the november garden chores: 2013

Margaret's garden clogs and trowelI KNOW, IT CAN FEEL OVERWHELMING: How will we ever tuck it all in for the offseason, battening down the botanical hatches “in time”? Particularly in the Northern zones, November can turn on us. Let’s take the pressure off by working in priority order, making sure we get the important things done first, in case the weather shuts down the cleanup operation.

safe keeping

OBVIOUSLY, NON-HARDY THINGS must be stashed safely. I got advice for stashing tropicals from Dennis Schrader, a wholesale nurseryman who specializes in them.  (Also in my archives: overwintering rosemary, and storing figs, and a general page of plant-stashing tips.)

Storing the vegetable-garden harvest in the correct spots—no, a winter squash and an onion won’t be happy in the same temperature and humidity!–means longer-lasting enjoyment. Here’s how, in a vegetable-storage chart and story.

are bulbs all planted?

MANY FLOWER BULBS can go in the ground surprisingly late, even up North, but what they can’t do is sit forgotten in your garage all winter. Get those bulbs in (and even purchase more on closeout sales, if you have time for extra digging). My bulb FAQ page.

Garlic is a bulb, too, and I’m hoping yours is already planted (do it today if not!). How to grow garlic.

an ounce of prevention

CLEAN UP with a particular eye to prevention–of pests, weeds, and general chaos in 2014. First hit things that showed signs of disease, weed or insect infestation, as author and longtime friend Ken Druse and I explained in this story and podcast. More tips:

  • WEED WAR! Minimize weed woes for next year. Some weeds are actually easier to thwart in late summer and fall, like these.
  • PEST PROBLEMS? Deer, voles, cabbage worms, squash bugs and other garden pests can be limited with tactics like this. (If you had viburnum leaf beetle, start your rounds of egg-case elimination now. The details.)
  • CLEAR TURF OR WEEDS from around the trunks of fruit trees and ornamentals to reduce winter damage by rodents and rabbits. Hardware cloth collars should be in place year-round, sunk an inch or so into the soil, and standing 18 inches high. Use half-inch mesh or smaller.
  • AND THIS: LAST CALL FOR SOIL SAMPLES. If you had areas where something didn’t fare well, gather a soil sample before the ground freezes and take or send it in for analysis to your local Cooperative Extension service.

easy compost, extra-early soil prep

PILE UP the compost-to-be materials as you cut back and rake faded plants, following Lee Reich’s easy plan (video how-to included). First extract finished compost and topdress your vegetable-garden beds with it, getting a jump on spring soil prep now.

all the while, be thoughtful!

I KNOW I SAID to keep priorities in order, but don’t rush around mindlessly. While I teased the 2012 garden apart, I made my 2013 gardening resolutions, remember? Bring a pad and pen outside with you; this is the time for recording inspiration about what to do differently next year.

Be thoughtful toward the birds, too:  Are you ready for “feeder season”? Put out the welcome mat for the birds, like this.

IF YOU STILL have time, more chores:

trees & shrubs

BET YOU WISH you’d added more woody plants that show off in fall. Plan to do so for next year–many can even be planted this late in autumn, if your nursery or a mail-order source still has stock. Or what about my top conifers for winter, and year-round, beauty?

ALWAYS BE on the lookout for dead, damaged, diseased wood in trees and shrubs and prune them out as discovered. This is especially important before winter arrives with its harsher weather, where weaknesses left in place invite tearing and unnecessary extra damage. Remove suckers and water sprouts, too. A pruning roundup is here.

vegetables, fruit & herbs

DRY BEANS? I’m still working on getting some shelling beans to dry, like this.

IF NEXT YEAR’S GARDEN plans include a patch of strawberries or asparagus, do the tilling and soil preparation now so bare-root plants ordered over the winter can be planted extra early come spring. Mulch existing strawberry plants with a couple of inches of (guess what?) straw. Let asparagus foliage go golden and brown on its own; don’t cut back till later, or even early spring.

PARSLEY AND CHIVES can be potted up and brought indoors for offseason use. A few garlic cloves in a pot will yield a supply of chive-like (but spicier) garlic greens all winter for garnish. I prefer to harvest my green herbs and store them in these ways for winter use.

flower garden

PROTECT ROSES FROM WINTER damage in cold zones by mounding up their crowns with a 6- to 12-inch layer of soil before the ground freezes. After all is frozen, add a layer of leaf mulch to further insulate.

CANNAS, DAHLIAS AND OTHER tender bulb-like things including elephant ears need to be dug carefully for indoor storage. There are many methods, but the basics: Once frost blackens the foliage, cut back the tops to 6 inches and dig carefully, then brush or wash off soil and let dry for two weeks or so to cure. Stash in a dry spot like unheated basement or crawl space around 40-50 degrees, in boxes or pots filled with bark chips or peat moss. Details on making other tender things at home.

DON’T DEADHEAD FADED perennials, biennials and annuals if you want self-sowns, or make sure to shake pods around before removing plant carcasses. Nicotiana, poppies, larkspur, clary sage and many others fall into this leave-alone group. So do plants with showy or bird-friendly seedheads, like grasses and coneflowers.

PREPARE NEW beds for future planting by smothering grass or weeds with layers of recycled corrugated cardboard or thick layers of newspaper, then put mulch on top.


START A POT OF PAPERWHITES in potting soil or pebbles and water, and stagger forcing of another batch every couple of weeks for a winterlong display.

CONTINUE RESTING AMARYLLIS BULBS in a dry, dark place where they will have no water at all for a couple of months total. I put mine in a little-used closet, and they will come out late this month, since they went in around mid- to late September. Pot up new ones now.


KEEP MOWING TILL THE GRASS stops growing, and make the last cut a short one. Let clippings lie on the lawn to return Nitrogen to the soil, and mow over fallen leaves to shred if not too thick, or rake them off into the compost heap before snow comes.

TAKE THE MOWER IN for service after the final mowing, rather than in the spring rush, then store without gas in the tank. Run it dry. If it’s got too much fuel in it, add stabilizer, from the hardware or auto supply store.

compost heap

LEAVES ARE precious, and make great leaf mold when composted. Maybe start a leaves-only compost pile this year, and use the proceeds as mulch next year? Running over dry leaves (and other dry non-woody material) with the mower to shred will reduce the area needed.

(All chores are based on my Zone 5B Berkshire MA/Hudson Valley NY location; adjust accordingly.)

  1. Jim Anderson says:

    Great list but you are making me a little overwhelmed and I do this for a living!

    I always try to add plants for the coming season or two if I can. My latest find is 3 Buds yellow dogwood. Its an improved yellow twig dogwood. I just have to figure out where I can plant them now!

    I looked at your conifer post and was delighted to see Cripsii, not because I have it but because I used it my first landscape design class on a group project and was heckled for it from one of the group members.The only conifers he wanted to were green and blue Colorado Spruce.

  2. Jackie H. says:

    I have to say you have a great list of things to do this autumn. Last year I had the most perfect weather to put my garden to bed ever, and I did very well – even though I first had surgery in September & then a 3 week trip south after recovery. Our weather was hot & dry all last year. This year has been mostly wet with various extremes of hot & barely warm. I barely got my garlic in, ground was wet, & I just finished getting another 12 foot row of Russets out of wet soil. I almost left them, but didn’t want to deal with it next spring. But I did have a bumper crop of potatoes this year. Don’t know where to store them all. Been giving them away. Your parsley tips for freezing have been great. Froze them last year & have a larger crop this year. Sadly, I didn’t catch the basil before they all succumbed to frost. You have the best tips ever. Just wish the weather would cooperate. My garden is, sadly, not been put to bed yet. But I’m hoping on some warmer days to complete. Now if I can get those pesky deer from tromping all over my raised beds…

    1. margaret says:

      Hi Jackie, and thanks for the kind words. “Just wish the weather would cooperate” should be our 24/7/365 gardener’s mantra, right? :)

  3. Michelle says:

    Hello Margaret, I have some plants in my garage that still have to be planted. Is it too late? I’ve never planted this late before. I just got too bust with my job so I haven’t had time to do gardening in ages :(

    Michelle from Zone 5B in Canada

  4. Rita Wilson says:

    I love reading your suggestions, tried and true for you and others. I’m 68 yrs old and just now have my dream yard and gardens. Thank goodness I also still have my health. I love these updates. Thanks for sharing your talents. Loved the compost one last week. Question – I had to have some digging done in the front lawn due to “kept secret” sewer problems from my July 13 purchase of this property and the grass is gone. OK by me, but time-wise I can’t get to it this year, can I allow the tons of leaves falling to just keep the dirt covered over winter? I’m thinking of planting it in lavender and annuals in the spring. I also believe in disturbing the soil as little as possible. Thanks!

  5. MJ says:

    I have a few blueberry bushes, maybe three feet tall, that I never got around to planting. Should I leave them outside or pull them into the basement life the figs? Also, I acquired a wonderful yellow rose bush this year that is still blooming here in zone six Hudson Valley… any special care for its first winter that I should be doing? Thanks so much, I love your monthly chores!!!

  6. Weedy says:

    I don’t think I could begin to describe the Fall I’m having. First, I am a lazy, depressed, procrastinating gardener who daydreams more than I ever accomplish. Second I’ve had a terrible year–in June last year my wife had a positive mammogram.Biopsy in July, lumpectomy in august, right radical in September.Then my autistic son decided he wanted his own apartment–empty nest syndrome after caring for someone for thirty nine years. They are both fine–she is disease free, no nodes(just still adjusting) He is working, keeping up an apartment, cooking for himself and fortunately taking care of his self minus all the great social services he was supposed to get. I am as usual trying to do something with the acres of brush and weeds I call a garden. It’s a jungle with beaten paths, actually, with attempts at beds and borders and plants that naturalize (or invade) here and there in no particular design. I haven’t the design sense of a woodchuck. I try to rationalize the mess by telling myself that my first anticipation of a garden grew from abandoned cellars on farmland and State land where daylilies, old escaped fulva and Lemon Lilies, double daffodils, lilacs, Aquilegia, and of course carpets of Myrtle grew. One time years ago I went out the back door and found two women cutting lilacs and thought I’d finally succeeded—they thought the place was abandoned..But still I’m never really satisfied, and, this Fall I started another of my daydreams. Thus far about three hundred square feet of brush as been cleared and I am grubbing out Lonicera (Is it japonica or tatarica that spreads like an evil plague?) My arthritic back has, so far, not given out. It has put me in the hospital when I was younger but seems to be holding out-perhaps the ruptured disc fused or something?? Meanwhile the county compost site ran out of compost so I had an excuse not to start beds for divided or seed grown daylilies (yes I cross some once in a while-sporadically) or vegetable beds. Then the leaves fell and for the time being I may wait till Spring. Meanwhile I did add one clump of daffodils, three new boxwoods around a rose bush, collected some phlox seeds ( I am not certain how I will plant them, crossed old Laura with a white late) and have three species daylily crosses I want to plant the seeds from before it freezes. I have a bag of Scilla that I want to plant in the woods if I don’t disturb the Snowdrops where I want to plant them, and, I am contemplating an attempt to cut down a forty foot wild black cherry without killing myself since it shades the are I cleared of the blasted Lonicera. Meanwhile my wife says she wants a new bathroom, windows,ceilings, and more insulation in the walls. I may try an ashram-my son once went to that one in the Berkshires.——————————————Weedy

  7. Nadia@Loveliveandgarden says:

    Some good reminders, thank you. I still haven’t managed to get my allium bulbs in the ground. AND I haven’t planted my garlic. I think I need to set an ‘alert’ for myself because these are two I don’t want to be without! :)

  8. Ann Marie Frissora says:

    Thank you so much for your tips. I now have a gloriously put to bed yard and a huge crop of veggies I didn’t know were out there.
    I had a mountain of Swiss chard, and a ton of tomatoes, and a few peppers. (Note: Gardener prone to exaggeration)
    It tooks literally hours to process Swiss chard.
    I have one gallon bags of individual bags to show for it. Ha ha. It will taste good.
    I now have 3 parsley logs in my freezer and my husband who is becoming quite the cook is very happy about this. Thanks for all your tips!

  9. I love keeping up on the weeds during the cool weather. Building up a sweat is really not possible, and except for missing the weeds hiding under fallen leaves, gratifying. We spend Jan – Mar in Florida so we don’t plant bulbs in the fall anymore. I love to start amaryllis in clay pots to give away at Christmas, though, so I get my bulb fix that way. It is just that Dear Husband and I disagree on the leaves. He mows them into the lawn, and blows them into the planting beds, but uses a gardening service to remove them before we leave in Jan so the beds are tidy for winter. I want them left in the beds, but know that they will blow all over if we do. Oh well…

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